Role of the dole: How benefits benefit artists
Without ‘the other arts council’, almost a quarter of artists would earn nothing while – and sometimes after – spending years on a body of work. The artist is alive and well in the garret, writes PATRICK FREYNE
IT HAS LONG been seen as “the other arts council”. Generations of musicians, artists, film-makers, actors and writers – including this journalist, in a former life as a musician – have spent time working on their art unpaid and with the help of the Department of Social Protection. Those in the culture industries generally recognise this as a necessary fact of life. In order for Ireland to develop a clutch of James Joyces, Riverdances and U2s to cement its arts reputation internationally, thousands of committed artists must toil for little or no reward.
Before the welfare state, the options for artists were: have rich relatives, find a wealthy patron or starve in a garret. After the welfare state those who might never have had the option to create could do so while on the dole. There are high-profile examples. JK Rowling wrote the first instalment of the Harry Potter sequence while living on benefits. Many of the punk, post-punk and pop bands of the 1970s and 1980s were formed in the dole queue.
“Without the [dole] you wouldn’t have had The Specials. You wouldn’t have had UB40. You wouldn’t have had The Clash,” says Peter Murphy, the writer of acclaimed novel John the Revelator and, a long time ago, a musician on the dole. “Now, it’s worth arguing that these kinds of bands were so ambitious and resourceful they might have figured it out one way or another . . . But the reality is that if you dedicate your life to the arts you’re essentially taking a vow of, if not poverty, then extremely menial living.
“If you work for four years on a book and someone gives you 50 grand it sounds like a lot of money, but if you break that up over four years of writing, and four years of learning how to write in the first place, that’s a very menial wage. Some newspapers like to portray artists as hookah-smoking Oscar Wilde dandy types sitting by a turf fire, but the reality is, I’m afraid, far more North of England kitchen-sink drama.”
In The Living and Working Conditions of Artists, a report published by the Arts Council in 2010, 23 per cent of the artists surveyed had registered as unemployed in the previous year. In 2008, according to the report, artists earned less than €15,000 from their art. Noel Kelly, the director of Visual Artists Ireland, says 37.5 per cent of the visual artists it surveyed last year had received assistance during the past five years. “Most depend on other sources of income, on the income of spouses or on the dole.”
The current economic conditions mean artists are particularly dependent on that very meagre latter option. “We have graduates getting out of college now who would traditionally have subsidised an art career [with a job] in academia, but all those jobs have gone,” says Kelly. He stresses that these people work very hard and do not want to receive the dole. “Artists are constantly asked to do stuff for nothing. Some exhibitions are great and pay artists a small stipend, but there are many organisations that just don’t have any money and artists are so willing to show their work that they work for them anyway. Artists often work for two or three years on a body of work with no money until the end.”